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Johnsons win custody; Vietri gets visitation


By Stephanie Taylor

TUSCALOOSA | A bitter, five-year custody fight over 5-year-old Joseph Samuel Johnson ended Monday with the adoptive parents getting to keep the child under an agreement with his biological father.

In the settlement approved by Tuscaloosa County Circuit Judge Philip Lisenby, Mark and Tracy Johnson of Tuscaloosa were awarded legal custody of the child, who has lived with them since he was an infant.

"This has been a long time coming. I think we got as good a settlement as we could get out of this situation," said the Johnson’s attorney, Scott Stapp. "Our main concern is doing the best that we can for Sam, and I think we’ve done that."

In a press conference in downtown Tuscaloosa Monday afternoon, Tracy Johnson said the family feels a tremendous sense of a relief to see the five-and-a-half-year court battle come to a conclusion.

The fight began only days after Sam’s birth.

"I think Sam understands more than people give him credit for. When I asked him how he felt about it he said ‘I feel good Mama, I feel good,’ " she said.

Sam’s biological father, Christopher Vietri, formerly of New Port Richey, Fla., will get four supervised visits a year with the child, according to an order issued Friday by Lisenby. Vietri is required to pay $200 a month in child support, and Sam’s biological mother, Natasha Gawronski, will pay $207. Lisenby had planned a custody trial for this spring barring a settlement.

Vietri, 32, a former New Port Richey resident who now lives in the New York area, declined to comment to the St. Petersburg Times. But his mother Irene Vietri, who lives in Palm Harbor, Fla. said, "Half a loaf is better than none ... He’ll get to see him. And when he’s older, well, he loves his daddy.’’

Vietri’s Birmingham attorney Martha Jane Patton said the settlement is restrictive to Vietri. "I can’t say that he’s happy about it, but this is the best we could do, the most they’ll give us at this point," she said. "We were satisfied that he didn’t terminate his parental rights."

She said the case was a partial victory because her client was acknowledged as the child’s legal father and the Johnsons are only "custodians’’ of the boy.

"They are not his legal parents,’’ she said. Patton added that the boy views the Johnsons as his mother and father.

Vietri had first sought custody of the boy when Johnson was an infant, and courts in both Alabama and Florida considered the issue. The baby was put up for adoption without Vietri’s consent by Gawronski, his former girlfriend who told him the child died at birth.

A spokeswoman for the Florida company Adoption By Choice declined to comment Monday.

Vietri will be able to visit Sam in a Birmingham child psychologist’s office four times a year, with the visits at least two months apart.

The nine-page agreement says the number of visits may increase over time, if the psychologist sees that both Vietri and Sam are having no problems together. Eventually, visits outside the psychologist’s offices may be allowed.

The agreement also allows Vietri to telephone or e-mail Sam on special occasions such as Father’s Day.

The father and son have met twice before for two hours each time, Mark Johnson, 37, said.

"He’ll have the opportunity of meeting Mr. Vietri and getting to know him. If he ever wants to expand the relationship that will be his option," he said. "The main thing is that Sam’s going to stay with us and get to grow up in our house."

Patton said she hopes Sam will choose to develop a relationship with his biological father.

"I hope the parties will build on this relationship despite their very differing approaches to the matter," she said. "Hopefully they can build some trust and offer Sam a wider view of the world."

Both Gawronski and Vietri’s wife accused him of physical abuse, a claim he denied.

Stapp said it was unclear whether those allegations affected the outcome of the case.

"It may or may not have," he said.

Stapp said the Johnsons are legally entitled to try for adoption again, but that they won’t.

"We haven’t even discussed it, that’s just a piece of paper," Mark Johnson said.

"It’s always a possibility, but it’s not anything we’re looking at," Stapp said. "It’s over for right now."

Sam, who turns six a week from today, enjoys playing baseball, video games, jumping on his trampoline and riding his bicycle. Mark Johnson said the kindergartner does well in school.

Tracy Johnson said the custody battle has left her discouraged about the legal system, and she and her husband urged people to become informed about elected judges and where they stand on issues.

It was a post-election, re-constituted Alabama Supreme Court that ruled in November 2000 that Vietri’s parental rights had not been terminated — a setback to the Johnsons’ legal bid.

"If people think it was handled improperly, please remember that when election time rolls around," Mark Johnson said.

The case sparked national debate over parental rights, and the story was featured on ABC’s Good Morning America and the Montel Williams Show. Tracey Johnson said she hopes Monday was her last press conference.

She said the situation changed the family’s outlook because they never knew how much longer they would have Sam.

"We’re probably closer than your average married couple because of what we’ve gone through and probably closer to our child," she said. "We’ve learned to enjoy every minute."

"It’s been a life-changing experience," Mark Johnson said.

He called Tuscaloosa judge Lisenby "a wise judge" and said the agreement will serve Sam’s best interests.

"If these people in New York and Florida were meant to raise him they would have been there to pick him up at the hospital when he was born," he said.

The St. Petersburg Times and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Stephanie Taylor at stephanie.taylor@tuscaloosanews.com or 345-0505, Ext. 258.


March 1996 | Mark and Tracy Johnson of Tuscaloosa adopt Sam, 3 days old, through Adoption By Choice, a Florida adoption agency. Natasha Gawronski put the baby up for adoption while telling the baby’s father, Christopher Vietri, that the child had been stillborn.

April 10, 1996 | Vietri, learning that his son is alive, files for custody in a Florida court.

Nov. 27, 1996 | A Pinellas County, Fla., judge refuses to let the Johnsons intervene in Vietri’s custody case. The judge orders the Florida adoption agency to regain custody of Sam and give temporary custody to Vietri.

January 1997 | The Johnsons urge the community to give money for their legal defense to a "Save Sam" fund.

April 7, 1997 | About 200 people attend a "Save Sam Rally" held in downtown Tuscaloosa.

April 15, 1997 | A Tuscaloosa Family Court judge rules that a Florida judge lacked jurisdiction to order Sam returned to his father in Florida and that the Johnsons failed to receive due process in Florida courts.

Feb. 13, 1999 | The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals rules that the Johnsons can keep custody of Sam.

Nov. 17, 2000 |The Alabama Supreme Court overturns the two lower court rulings and finds by a 5-4 vote that Vietri never terminated his parental rights and ordered Sam to be turned over to Vietri.

Dec. 20, 2000 | The Alabama Supreme Court appoints a special mediator after the Johnsons ask that the decision be reconsidered.

Jan. 8, 2001 | The mediator asks for more time.

Feb. 28, 2001 | Vietri talks to a Florida TV station about meeting his son for the first time.

March 2, 2001 | The mediator confirms that talks have failed to reach a compromise.

April 27, 2001 | The Alabama Supreme Court upholds its ruling that Vietri’s parental rights had not been terminated and sends the case back to Tuscaloosa Circuit Court to be reconsidered.

Oct. 3, 2001 | Tuscaloosa Circuit Judge Philip Lisenby orders the Johnsons and Vietri to draw up a custody agreement.

March 11, 2002 | The Johnsons and Vietri announce that they have reached a custody agreement, allowing Vietri four visits a year. Sam Johnson will stay in Tuscaloosa.

2002 Mar 12